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Carl Orff – Catulli Carmina & Trionfo di Afrodite

‘The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun’,

artwork by William Blake

used here for the CD cover of Carl Orff ‘s ‘Trionfi’


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, are two musical works by Carl Orff. Did you know that besides composing the cantata ‘Carmina Burana'(that obtained planetary fame after John Boorman’s film ‘Excalibur’ was released), he also set poetry from the classical age into fascinating and thrilling music with two other cantatas, the ‘Catulli Carmina’ and the ‘Trionfo di Afrodite’? Let’s discover together!



‘Catulli Carmina’

Catulli Carmina (Songs of Catullus) is a cantata by Carl Orff dating from 1940–1943. He described it as ludi scaenici (scenic plays). The work mostly sets poems of the Latin poet Catullus to music, with some text by the composer. Catulli Carmina is part of Trionfi, the musical trilogy that also includes the Carmina Burana and Trionfo di Afrodite. It is scored for a full mixed choir, soprano and tenor soloists, and an entirely percussive orchestra.

Dramatic structure

The piece is divided into three parts: a prelude with Latin text by Orff, the central dramatic story using Catullus’ poems, and a short postlude which recalls the music of the prelude

In the prelude, groups of young women and young men sing to each other of eternal (“eis aiona” – “forever” – two words of Greek in the otherwise Latin text) love and devotion, along with quite explicit statements of the erotic activities they intend with each other. (In the texts distributed with programs and early recordings, such as the Turnabout (Vox) one, many lines in the translation are left blank.) A group of old men interrupts with sarcastic comments and charges the young people to listen to “the songs of Catullus”.

The story proper tells of Catullus, a lovesick young man who falls in love with Lesbia, a woman who does not remain faithful to him. The tenor and soprano soloists portray Catullus and Lesbia respectively. This story is based loosely on the factual relationship between Catullus and Clodia, with a text mostly constructed from the poems of Catullus, in which he did address Clodia by the pseudonym Lesbia. Catullus wrote many poems about this relationship and the ones selected for the cantata take the audience through its several phases.

In this listing, the poems are given the standard numbers.Subject to occasional textual variants, the poems are as written by Catullus, except for some interpolations in Latin (‘O mea Lesbia’ and the like, and exclamations of approval by the old men) and the curious extra words in poem 109.

Act 1
“Odi et amo” (poem 85)
“Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus” (poem 5)
“Ille mi par esse deo videtur” (poem 51)
“Caeli! Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa” (poem 58)
“Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle quam mihi” (poem 70)

Act 2
“Jucundum mea vita” (poem 109, with the apparently Italian words Dormi, dormi ancora interpolated)
“Desine de quoquam quicquam bene velle mereri” (poem 73)

Act 3
“Odi et amo” (poem 85)
“Amabo mea dulcis Ipsitilla” (poem 32)
“Ameana, puella defututa” (poem 41)
“Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire” (poem 8)
“Nulla potest mulier tantum se dicere amatam” (poem 87)
“Nunc est mens deducta tua mea, Lesbia, culpa” (poem 75)

This selection and sequence of poems is apparently intended to tell the young people on stage that love will not last forever.

However, in the postlude, the young people have clearly decided to ignore the message and the cantata ends with their continued exclamations of “eis aiona” (meaning “forever”), to the exasperation of the old men.

The music
The orchestra only plays in the prelude and postlude, whereas in the Catullus play itself, the soloists are only accompanied by the chorus, which takes the part of a Greek chorus. The piece experiments with repeated phrases and syncopated rhythms even more so than Carmina Burana. (From its Wikipedia page)


‘Trionfo di Afrodite’

Trionfo di Afrodite (Italian for Triumph of Aphrodite) is a cantata written in 1951 by the German composer Carl Orff. It is the third and final installment in the Trionfi musical trilogy, which also includes Carmina Burana (1937) and Catulli Carmina (1943).

Described by the composer himself as a concerto scenico (scenic concert), the Trionfo is a representation of a ritual for a Greco-Roman wedding, in a similar fashion to Igor Stravinsky’s Les noces. In this case, Trionfo refers to the Roman and Renaissance trionfo, meaning “procession” or “festival”. By using the word trionfo, Orff specifically intended to identify the work as a successor to the Renaissance and baroque tradition of the masque and pageant, not as a formal borrowing but as a rather refreshed and extended look on it.

Orff began working on the Trionfo as early as 1947, but could not fully concentrate on the piece until he completed his Antigonae in March 1949. The score was finally completed in 1951 and premiered some time later, on February 14, 1953, at La Scala in Milan, with Herbert von Karajan conducting. Originally published in 1952 by B. Schott’s Söhne, it was reprinted by the original publisher in 1980 and again in 1990 by Ernst Eulenburg.

The texts are based on Latin wedding poems by Catullus, as well as Greek poems by Sappho and a small part by Euripides.[2] In fact, Catullus is Orff’s primary source of inspiration and guide in using both classical Latin and Greek text. Orff had already explored this in Catulli Carmina with Catullus’s Carmen 51, which is, in turn, an adaption of Sappho’s famous love poem 31. It is likely that it was the last call in Catulli Carmina’s Exodium, “Accendite faces!” (Light the torches!), that gave Orff the idea of using bridal torches in his new work and bringing the trionfo d’amore to its concluding climax, with a representation of a nuptial feast, as found in classical literature. Consequently, Orff decided to opt for Catullus’s 61 and 62, which mainly focuses on the topic of the nuptial feast. Both of these poems were originally written as an offering on the occasion of a patrician Roman couple. However, these poems were not intended to be sung, but should rather act as depictions of the event of marriage as such. As a matter of fact, Orff’s intentions with the text were not to offer an ad hoc reconstruction of an antique rite, but rather to present the union of an “archetypal couple as the work of the Goddess of Love, as a “hieros gamos” (holy marriage). In this sense, the subtitle of the work, Concerto scenico, implies that there is a deliberate absence of plot, as opposed to the two preceding parts of the triptych.

The challenge that faced me was to fuse these fragments into a new whole – the tiny particles, short stanzas or individual lines which are all that remain to us of Sappho’s poems, preserved in literature or protected by desert sands against the worms of time – and to use Catullus’ nuptial poems as framework for it.

The Music
Despite the large orchestra, the instrumentation is often sparse, especially in the Greek verses, and the music is strongly influenced by the rhythms and melodies of the spoken word, though little importance is actually given to both tonic and prosodic accent. The piece closes with a triumphant apparition of Aphrodite herself, a rare instance when the full choral and orchestral forces are actually used.

(From its Wikipedia page)


The ‘Excalibur’ musical quote

of the ‘Carmina Burana’

(with a little Wagner (Parsifal) before)

I didn’t know how empty was my soul until it was filled‘ Arthur.


‘The Trionfi’




Source: 🌿 🌿
Carl Orff – Catulli Carmina & Trionfo di Afrodite

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